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Eight creepy crawly facts that will really bug you

Research into insects ranges from protecting bee populations to how beetles are able to cultivate their favourite fungus. Image credit: pixabay/ROverhate

Horizon pulls out its magnifying glass and takes a look at the bizarre world of insects. 

1. A cockroach-inspired robot is being developed for use in disaster zones.

Researchers hope to create a new type of emergency aid robot based on the speed and agility of the common cockroach. Image credit: PolyPEDAL Lab

A cockroach can fit through spaces just a quarter of its height and move 20 times its length per second. The equivalent for a person would be someone running at 113 kilometres per hour. Inspired by the cockroaches’ flexible exoskeleton and speed, researchers have made a search-and-rescue robot that can recoil its legs and compress its body to get through rubble and quickly find survivors after natural disasters or bombings.

2. Bed-bug-resistant textiles are under development by researchers.

A cluster of Cimex lectularius, otherwise known as the common bedbug. 'Blood-fed C. lectularius' is licensed by Ragesoss under CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t let the bed bugs bite – with a new textile that some researchers are making, this might become even easier. Although bed bugs were mostly eradicated from our homes in the 1950s, they made a resurgence in recent decades due to factors such as mutations that make them resistant to insecticides, increased human migration and climate change. Researchers hope that a new bed-bug-repellent textile will help keep us safe from these unwanted roommates.

3. Bed bugs can spend over a year in a hibernation-like torpor.

An artist's impression of a manned mission to Mars, part of NASA's Mars Design Reference Mission. Image credit: NASA and Pat Rawlings

If insecticide-resistant bed bugs weren’t bad enough, they also have a way to stay alive if temperatures fall below -10 degrees Celsius: they go into a hibernation-like state called a torpor which can last for up to 450 days. Some mammals also go into this state, which is why NASA is funding a study into this that could be used for Mars-bound astronauts.

 4. Some beetles grow their own food.

'Gallery, larvae, and an adult beetle of Xylosandrus crassiusculus, one of the most common ambrosia beetle in tropical and subtropical areas worldwide' is licensed by Hulcr under CC BY-SA 3.0

Some bugs go out looking for food. Others make their own, such as Ambrosia beetles. They dig caverns in old tree trunks and incubate their favourite meal: fungus. When scientists tried to create this same fungus in a lab, they had a problem with an invasive mould, which is both present in wood and in the lab. They found that the Ambrosia beetles fend off mould, keeping the fungus intact. Researchers are trying to understand the chemistry behind the beetles' mould prevetion-technique to see if there's potential for a new kind of pesticide.

5. Dragonflies had 60 centimetre wingspans.

The biggest wingspans of modern-day dragonflies can be up to 19 centimetres. Image credit: Hillis

Dragonflies from millions of years ago sound almost as mystical as their supernatural namesake, with wingspans that stretched out almost 60 centimetres. Some scientists believe that this could be due to high oxygen levels during the Paleozoic era, the time period between 542 and 251 million years ago when dragonflies evolved. Earth’s atmosphere then had about 50 % more oxygen than today, so to test the theory, Professor John VandenBrooks from Arizona State University raised a few types of insects in the late Paleozoic’s 31 % oxygen level, at today’s 21 % level, and at the lowest oxygen level since life, 12 %. He found that dragonflies and beetles grew faster and bigger in high oxygen compared to the ones in earth’s current atmosphere.

6. Researchers are developing mite-resistant bees.

Bee pupae are especially prone to the varroa mite. 'Two drone pupae of the Western honey bee with varroa mites' is licensed by Waugsberg under CC BY-SA 3.0

The average worker bee can pollinate up to 5 000 flowers in one day, yet only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its entire life. Honey production and pollination may be at risk as the bee population in parts of Europe continues to dwindle due a decline in habitable space, pesticides, and the deadly varroa mite, which has been the main reason for the majority of colony losses over the last 50 years. Some researchers, backed by EU funding, are looking into ways to measure bees’ resistance against the mite to teach beekeepers how to breed stronger populations.

7. Frozen sperm could help save bee populations.

It is thought that by freezing bee sperm, researchers can help ensure future generations of bees. 'Bulb of the penis, containing sperm, is in focus' is licensed by Michael L. Smith under CC BY-SA 3.0

Other scientists are taking a different approach to saving the bee population: they are figuring out ways to freeze bee sperm so that it can be used to inseminate a queen at a later date. These scientists are collecting samples from bees around the world and storing them in liquid nitrogen. To do this, the researchers at a US Department of Agriculture lab in Fargo, North Dakota, remove water from the embryo so that it doesn’t turn into ice, which can puncture other organelles in the cell. They do this by removing the protective shell with bleach and replacing the water in the embryo with a chemical so that it can be frozen to approximately -157 degrees Celsius.

8. House flies are being readied for use as animal feed.

'Fly and beetle larvae on 5-day old corpse of South African Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis), Honeydew, Gauteng' is licensed by Paul Venter under CC BY-SA 3.0

Insects could help us save valuable farmland which is now being used to grow crops for animal feed thanks to researchers on the EU-funded PROteINSECT project, who are trying to find a way to feed pigs and chicken with fly larvae. At the moment, feeding insect protein to animals raised for human consumption is prohibited under EU law, but this research project is providing data for policymakers on how this may be done safely. 

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